Mar 1 2012 2:00pm

Zippers, Kohl, and Woman-Beating: Anachronisms in Historical Fiction

Kate Winslet as Rose in TitanicHave you seen the guide to Downton Abbey: Tracking the Anachronisms yet?

And having seen it…do you care? Or is it the case that you (sorry) couldn’t care less?

In the arts, an anachronism (from the Greek “against time”) can be a word, an object, an event, an article of clothing, or a concept that is placed in an inappropriate time period. They’re not hard to spot in the visual arts, in film, or in literature. When oranges appear on the table in Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, that’s an anachronism. When, during Titanic, Rose discourses with cheeky authority on the theories of Sigmund Freud, that’s also an anachronism—Freud wouldn’t publish those theories for nearly a decade. When a character in a Regency strips down to her brassiere: anachronism. And so forth.

Some readers take a hard line against the presence of anachronisms in their romantic fiction, feeling that it betrays a certain sloppiness on the part of the author. Others don’t care so much, reasoning that as long as the story is good and the characters are believable, who really cares that the internal combustion engine wouldn’t really be invented for another four years? (Or whatever).

A Bride for Tom by Ruth Ann NordinTo me, the very best books allow me to immerse myself in a time or place, whether that’s an overheated Regency ballroom, a windswept prairie in the early twentieth century, or a bustling World War II battlefield hospital. The details carefully rendered by the author take shape in my mind and suddenly I am there. But when I’m brought up short by something that seems inconsistent with what I know (or think I know) of the period under discussion, I’m not there anymore. I’m right back here, and I’m looking up from my book all “Did eighteenth-century English parents really name their daughters ‘Raeven’?”

Yeah, period-inappropriate names are a personal pet peeve of mine; I discussed What’s in a Name?: The Importance of Names in Romance Novels before. Similarly, when the language is obviously all wrong for the setting, it can be pretty jarring. For example, in Ruth Ann Nordin’s A Bride for Tom, which is set in 1868, lovely Jessica notices the shy and awkward Tom lumbering toward her and reflects “That would just be gross.” That would also be something Jessica would never say: “Gross” was not used in the sense of “disgusting” until the mid-twentieth century.

Wagons West: Montana by Dana Fuller RossDetails of dress and appearance can also be tricky; the zipper didn’t become widely used until the 1890s, the bra is really a twentieth-century thing, and don’t even get me started on makeup. I know that even respectable women used powder, rouge, and lip color back in the day, although they may not have admitted it. But in Dana Fuller Ross’ epic romantic series Wagons West, a saga of the Oregon Trail, one of the female characters (I don’t remember which one, and in fact it might have been more than one—it’s been years since I’ve read those books) keeps showing up with “kohl-rimmed eyes.” Now, before you jump all over me in the comments all “THEY TOTALLY HAD EYE MAKEUP IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY,” let me just pre-emptively say…Okay, sure. But “kohl-rimmed eyes?” On a pioneer woman? On the American frontier? Yeah, probably not so much.

On the other hand, in the spirit of confession I feel compelled to admit that I’m sometimes perfectly willing to overlook certain details in the name of artistic license, and that furthermore I’m sure that plenty of historical weirdnesses slide right past me. If I’m reading a book about the Civil War and someone shoots a quadruple-barreled McBanger shotgun, I’m not going to be the person who snipes that the McBanger only had three barrels until 1880. On the other hand, if I’m reading a book in which the hero, Captain Handsome of the Army of the Potomac, rolls out of bed and slides his lean, muscled legs into a pair of buckskin breeks, zips his fly, and shouts to his long-suffering cook “Yo, Mikaela! Hot dogs for breakfast,” I’ll know that the author hasn’t done her homework. (If Captain Handsome then proceeds to take flight in his dirigible and spends the remainder of the chapter up in the clouds picking off Johnny Reb with his laser cannon, I’ll know I’m reading steampunk.)

Outlander by Diana GabaldonFinally, in some cases a too-strict reliance on historical detail can be just as off-putting. A classic example of this phenomenon is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, in which hero Jamie gets fed up with heroine Claire’s bad habit of putting his men into mortal danger through her dangerously unpredictable behavior, so he beats her. He beats her! Gabaldon’s response to the clamor around this scene (paraphrased) was “I scrupulously researched every aspect of this book and Jamie’s actions and attitudes are fully consistent with those of a man in that time and place so obviously it’s all good because REALISM!!!” To which I can only reply…yes, from a historic standpoint, Jamie’s actions are unexceptional, but on the other hand this is a book whose plot kicks into gear when the heroine travels backward through time, so…well, I wouldn’t have missed that scene if it weren’t there, is all I’m saying.

In short, the author of a historical romance walks a difficult line; the story needs to be sufficiently rooted in its time and place that it can transport the reader, but fresh enough in attitude that the reader isn’t completely turned off. Both God and the devil are in the details, and the wrong details can make or break a novel.

What are your favorite literary anachronisms?


Kate Nagy is Editor at Large of Geek Speak Magazine.

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Lynne Connolly
1. Lynne Connolly
I treasure a muslin pelisse,which one character lends another to keep her warm! But I'm not sure that's an anachronism, more of incorrect terminology, since both muslin and pelisses were known, but not usually together!

There were two in a recent read that stopped me, and the second one is my current (un)favorite. The hero drives a landau into the countryside. Erm, no. A landau is what the Queen uses to tour Ascot. It's a low-bodied vehicle, specifically for use in the town and because it's easier to climb into, specifically for the use of widows and ladies "of a certain age."

The second, promised one, was a Regency where the hero and heroine spend a page or so discussing Faberge eggs. While I'm positive that the Prince Regent would have adored them, he'd have needed a Tardis to get one!
Lynne Connolly
2. Lynne Connolly
Argh, I can't edit! The only real anachronism in my previous post is the egg! The others are inaccuracies, not anachronisms.

So in mitigation, m'lud, may I offer "hello," in pre-telephone novels? (including the first book I ever had published, on the first page! No, you won't find it in the reprint!)
Lege Artis
3. Lege Artis
I would like to read some more of your take on Captain Handsome, perhaps in some other time period...? :)
I have problem with time-inappropriate names. It irkes me sometimes. I mean, Brianna in regency?! I read historical romance- and there can be a lot historical inaccuracies, but for me are inforgivable those mistakes that are easily avoidable- facts that take just a little research, internet browsing. Great post, Kate!
Darlene Marshall
4. DarleneMarshall
I do my best to avoid anachronisms in my own work, not always successfully, and it does tend to wrench me out of the story if I'm reading a medieval where they're eating potatoes (and they're not eating them in Peru).

My favorite scream-aloud-and-throw-the-book moment was in a Regency where the heroine talks about her recent visit to the Eiffel Tower.
Clare 2e
5. clare2e
I just read a Regency where the heroine pleaded that the hero not "sanitize" his comments or thoughts for her. Like the gist, but the wording put me off. I don't always catch the historical anachronisms, though sometimes, I find myself wondering, so I stop to look something up. For the sake of the story, I can handle more direct dialogue than would've been common in that era. However, when it gets so loose that it's full of modern jargon, like in Kate's "gross" example above, I'm right out of the story. "Check it! Bro's handling that barouche like a boss."
6. Janga
If I'm fully engaged with the story, I'm forgiving unless the anachronism is truly egregious--such as sending a character to a country that didn't exist at the time. I'm often unaware of the fine points about which some purists rant. I'm much more likely to be pulled out of the story by errors in grammar or diction.
Mary Anne Landers
7. Mary Anne Landers
Thank you for your post, Kate Nagy. Concerning anachronisms and other inaccuracies in fiction, if I'm enjoying the story, they don't matter. If I'm not, they're major fails. When an author, especially a big one, makes a historical boo-boo, it doesn't necessarily bother her readers, especially her fans. How many Judith McNaught devotees banished her from their TBR piles because title of her debut novel "Whitney, My Love" (1984) contains a woman's name that, in the setting of the story, Regency England, would have been absurd? I can't always be sure that what seems like an anachronism really is one. If I might refer to a film rather than a book, after watching "Braveheart" I got into an argu---er, discussion with a friend of mine. I claimed in William Wallace's day the Scots didn't wear clan tartans. There was no such thing; for any man wearing a kilt, any plaid pattern would do. Therefore the clan tartans in the movie were anachronisms. He said no, they wore clan tartans in the late Middle Ages. Then I held my peace. Is this really worth getting into a fight over? As for favorite anachronisms in romances I've read, I recall one laughable example---but not the title or the author, which is probably just as well. In merry old England circa 1400, the heroine goes shopping for a present for her beloved, and pays for her purchase in guineas. She was using a type of coin not minted until 1663. For some weird reason, my favorite anachronism in historical films is a line in the 1951 version of "Quo Vadis". You'd think that with all the money MGM spent on this spectacle that one of their experts on ancient Rome would've caught this blunder. When Vinicius, the victorious general played by Robert Taylor, returns to Rome after a hard-fought campaign, he's invited to dinner by the wife of his former commander. She tells him, "Dinner will be served at the ninth hour." What's wrong with this picture? The Romans didn't keep time the way we do. The twelve hours of the day started at dawn and ended at sunset; the hours of the night usually weren't counted. So in effect, she told him she'd serve dinner in the middle of the afternoon. But never mind; I still love this movie! Keep up the good work!
Lege Artis
8. etv13
What's wrong with serving dinner in the middle of the afternoon? That's when Jack Aubrey ate his, and when my Appalachian-farmer great-grandparents ate theirs. It's when a lot of us eat our Thanksgiving dinners.
Marian DeVol
9. ladyengineer
Kate, thank you for an excellent and detailed article! I very much enjoyed it.

Anachronisms, if they are egregious enough, will pull me out of the story and reduce my enjoyment of the book. If I decide to finish it in spite of the errors, it is unlikely to be on my keeper shelf or be a candidate for a reread.

For me, modern language in dialogue or names not in use prior to 1900 are often deal breakers. Minor inaccuracies may not register if the story is good and engaging enough - i.e. plot and character development sufficiently complex and consistent, HEA satisfying and not overly contrived. I'm not going to research a niggling doubt until I'm finished with the book, if then.

If, as you say, certain behavior is confirmed to be period, but not what I enjoy reading about (such as woman-beating in an historical romance), I'm unlikely to finish the book and may never read anything else by that author.
Vanessa Ouadi
10. Lafka
Hum. I guess the simple fact of writing an "historical" book in the 21st century leads to anachronism, given that the language we use nowadays is different in style than the one used for example by Jane Austen. What I mean is that, if a book takes place in 1815, the way it is written _ from the angle of language purely, not to mention storyplot, characters, etc. _ will be different whether it's written by a contemporary of this era or a 21st century author. Some turn of phrases, some expressions, are simply not used any more _ and what would be natural under Shakespeare or Austen's quill will likely feel forced if a modern author tried it.

Nonetheless, anachronism in the writing style shall remain incidental. If a modern expression slips into a regency-set discussion, it will very likely bother me. Not to mention a time-inaccurate accessory (in fashion for instance) or, worst, an historical mistake (like mentionning an event when it is not supposed to have happened yet). It can sometimes lie in the details, such as the characters' name or behaviour.
I actually don't nitpick as long as nothing strikes me as misplaced. If things seem to fit in the historical background, I probably won't even notice a small mistake. But as soon as I've put my finger on something which strikes me as out-of-time, I can't help being bothered by it _ it really kills the mood for me. Reading a book is all about being in the mood, as soon as I'm not in anymore it's really difficult for me to appreciate it.
Lege Artis
11. brontëgirl
Minor anachronisms and inaccuracies in details aren't that big a deal--it's the easy-to-research-but-they-get-it-wrong-anyway things that are dealbreakers for me, like the scene in a film about Queen Victoria where her mother was in the room when Victoria was told she'd become Queen. Now, only Victoria and the people who gave her the news were in the room because she told her mother to leave, and that fact was well-documented in more than one source, so getting that wrong is like writing a film about the American Revolution and having Nathan Hale say "Give me liberty or give me death" instead of Patrick Henry. And accuracy in this scene is important her ordering her mother out of the room was a part of Victoria's growth as an independent person and, in the film, part of characterizing her properly.
Lege Artis
12. escondita
While I accept a certain latitude when it comes to period language (especially slang, or idiom), I give huge points to an author who can use it deftly. It's like good seasoning--the whole dish becomes richer, more lively, and distinctive. Conversely, blatant "modernims" jerk me right out of the story, and have even led to dangerous levels of jaw clenching and teeth grinding. One particular train wreck of a novel was purportedly set in the Bavarian Alps, c. 1820. The heroine, a 20-something spinster finds herself at the mouldering family castle of a darkly brooding fellow with a wooden leg, and a sinister past. He also has a handsome, outwardly charming younger brother who, at least once, addresses his sibling as "bro". Really. The heroine uses the word "gross" (as in distasteful), and in a conversation with herself thinks something to the effect of "Like I'd really --no way." Unfortunately, the anachronisms didn't stop there. Fondly remembering childhood Christmas celebrations, she searches the attics and finds a clever little artificial Christmas tree on a mechanical base. When wound up, the base spins, and played "Silent Night" (which had been written less than 5 years earlier, in neighboring Austria). Coincidentally, "Silent Night"--excuse me, "Stille Nacht", since there wasn't an English translation until the 1850's--was one of her favorite carols. It actually went downhill from there. If you can't get the details right, and don't like research, please, please write something else--or at least invest in a research assistant!
Lege Artis
13. MTangel
Well, this comment is probably too late, but I did enjoy this article! I was actually looking up anachronisms in fiction after reading a rather irritating example. I can certainly understand slipping up a little with phrases or dates, but if one is writing historical fiction, one must do research. And no, looking at a couple old advertisements does not constitute "research." Just because people and homes are depicted a certain way in an ad doesn't mean it was like that in reality (that's the point of an ad!). While we're on the subject, zippers were not used in Edwardwian women's dresses.

I get so annoyed when I'm trying to enjoy a story, and the main character is so stupid I want to beat them myself. For example, if the main character realizes they've traveled in time, why why why do they continually act as though it's a huge suprise when the people act differently from modern times? And then they get all offended when people don't understand or disagree. They insist on doing things their own way, because a modern person knows better, and then can't understand when they land in hot water. *facepalm

Sorry, I'm ranting. I should have waited to cool off a little before leaving a comment. If anyone is still reading, do you know of some historical fiction that's well-researched?
Howard Brazee
14. HowardBrazee
Regency is close enough that I expect accurate use of words, for the most part. It's harder when the language is very different from modern English - how much to translate into modern speech? But I expect most of the protagonists to have values that I can relate to, which were relatively rare at the time.

Occasionally anachronism is actually useful. For instance, the mini-series "Deadwood", they updated the obscenities to modern obscenity vocabulary to keep the spirit of them, without viewers chuckling about mild obsolete obscenities. The words don't matter as much as the feeling being accurate.
Lege Artis
15. lm7418
I read a Regency story fairly recently where the young English Lady fetched a sweater for the hero because the fall evening was chilly. I left them to it.
16. DanaSherwood
@lm7418: ::wince:: And I guess that got past more than one set of eyes, too.
Lege Artis
17. Margery Starseeker
The best way to describe my attitude towards anachronisms is my experience when I moved across the country and turned up to act at a Renaissance Faire new to me. I had previously been at a faire that valued historical accuracy and I was quite proud of my Elizabethan accent and phraseology. I'd worked hard to perfect it and was complemented by a scholar who was giving a preseason seminar on it. So there I was at this new festival and a fellow lets loose with some bad cockney. I look at him and say, don't you know that accent is from the 19thcentury.? Aw, hell, he says, it's an English accent and the audience won't know any better. But it's wrong!!! I wanted to scream at him and I suddenly realized this attitude was full of contempt. Contempt for the audience and a lazy disrespect for his fellow actors who were willing to do the work to get it right. Someone who makes a mistake but is trying can get a handwave. But someone who obviously has never cracked a book or googled, well their contempt for the audience probably extends to their craft as a writer too, and their work is probably going to be a waste of my money and time.
Lege Artis
18. Annie Martin
the anachronisms that infuriate me the most, hands down, are names. Women before about the 1890s named Ashley, Courtney, Leslie, Whitney, Joyce, etc make me want to scream. If they're a main character I'll have to just give up on the book because each time I read that name it'll take me right out of the story again.
I don't come across it as often, but names that have a modern "unique" or "creative" spelling are even worse. If your Middle Ages knight is named Sir Zayne Kolton I'm going to assume that the author cared not a whit for accuracy or details of anything else either.

A couple of years ago I was reading a historical fiction book that took place around the War of the Roses. The main character referred to her sister's (or maybe her friend's or her maid's?) "cornsilk hair." Normally a mistake like that, I'd let it go, but in the first quarter of the book this girl was described as having sapphire eyes and corn silk hair so many times that I just couldn't keep reading it.

I do try to give more leeway to books written/published before about 2000. But since then, it's been so much easier to research almost anything that there's really no excuse for most major or moderate anachronisms.
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